VIVA MILANO! - PART 3 - HI HO HI HO OFF TO WORK I GO
Monday morning dawned at the YWCA in Milan, and, in spite of the enjoyable evening spent with (teetotal) Anna the previous day, I woke up bright and early to the impatient ring of the little travel alarm, a present from my Mum and Dad, which had safely seen me get out of bed on time in my three month sojourn in France two years before.
I sat up in my bed, which was no more than a head-boardless hard bunk in a corner, with a piece of pink fabric attached to the wall around it. It was a warm and sunny morning and the rather drab room was bathed in a fresh lemon light. Leaping out of bed, I followed the example of my room-mate and queued for the bathroom.
Ablutions having been completed, I followed my nose through to the dining room for breakfast, which consisted of large chunks of not-quite-stale bread left over from the previous evening’s supper, yet more peaches if wanted, and a huge bowl of coffee – I have seen smaller buckets – into which, watching what the other girls did, I dipped my hunk of bread, which, though a little hard, was still delicious. I had some opportunity to talk to some of my fellow breakfasters, which included students like myself on work experience, one or two foreigners who had just come to Milan looking for work (one of these was a girl called Milena Isonni, a half Yugoslav half Italian girl who became a good friend.) and a couple of native Italian girls who for whatever reason had no-where to live. I was the only English speaker, and remained so throughout my stay.
My first problem that morning had been what to wear. I had already noted that my skirts were somewhat more ‘mini’ than seemed to be the norm in Milan, unless you counted the ‘haute couture’ shops in the gallerie; and trousers on women were not very evident either. Although considering I was five inches shorter than the average British female, you can imagine what my clothes would have looked like on someone of a less challenged stature. I settled for a fairly boring blue not-too-mini skirt, and a plain short sleeved blouse.
The next problem was getting to the office. I descended the stairs carefully and stepped on to the grey pavement to breathe the fresh coffee-laden warm air of early morning Milan. I consulted the travel instructions kindly written down for me by the aged Count who I had met the previous day when visiting my school friend Ann, au-pair to his grandchildren. He had even drawn me a diagram of how to get to the tram stop, and an estimate of how long it would take to get to the industrial estate where I would find the company I was to work for, a manufacturer of ‘lampadari’ - chandeliers and light fittings.
It was in fact the final stop on route 12, so at least if I managed to get on the correct tram first time, I would just have to sit tight to the end of the line. Mind you, having plenty of experience of London buses, who frequently change their destination indicators mid-way through the journey, presumably for the purpose of tea consumption which I understand is a habit frequently indulged in by bus drivers, I was silently praying that tram drivers were not as thirsty as their London counterparts.
Feeling every bit a fully-fledged Milanese after my two whole days in that city, I decided to do what everyone else seemed to be doing, and popped into the local coffee shop, where I was served a tiny cup of thick morning coffee by the proprietor, who was already greeting me like a regular. Ignoring the fact that this dark concoction would be coating my delicate stomach with a thick goo which could probably give me indigestion for a week – at least it certainly would nowadays – I knocked it back like a native, standing up at the counter, wished the good signor ‘buon giorno’, and set off for the start of my working week.
Central tram stop - Check. Number 12 tram - Check. Right direction – probably. No: – Check. Grumpy tram driver having punched the Monday dot on my weekly ticket confirmed I was going in the right direction. (For work that is, not necessarily the rest of my life).
The quaint old tram was like a museum exhibit. Brown painted wood on the outside, and lined with long benches on the inside, made of slatted polished wood. So everyone seated travelled facing inwards squashed tightly against as many people as could squeeze on board. Brass fittings and poles to hang on to when necessary. Rather a bumpy ride, but interesting to travel across a strange city. At least it was for the first couple of days; after that I did what commuters all over the world still do, (at least those not enslaved to the smartphone or i-pad or pod or other mysterious electronic gadgets). Bought a newspaper and enjoyed chats with my fellow passengers - the Italians, unlike their British counterparts, being completely unreserved in starting conversations with strangers, a trait which I find endearing, and indulge in on London buses to this day whenever possible. (Yes folks, I am that dotty old bird who always sits next to you on the 208 to Lewisham).
The end of the line. But hopefully the beginning of some exciting new experiences for me. The tram spewed me out on a dusty new industrial estate, and I soon managed to locate the typical 60s style square concrete block housing the lampadari company that had offered me a few week’s work experience with pay. I wish I could remember the name of the outfit; all I can recall is that it began with a ‘Z’ and involved other ‘z’s. I have always liked the letter Z, having been blessed with one in my name, unusual for an English family. This was always useful when playing those childhood games where you have to take a step forward when the person calls out a letter if you have it in your name. The uninitiated ALWAYS called ‘z’ at some point. Not so useful however when having constantly to spell out a name that sounds foreign but actually has its roots in Sussex.
But I digress.
I marched in what I hoped was a purposeful manner towards the office block, dodging lumps of concrete and other building materials and heavy machinery, as the estate was still very much under construction. It was not yet 8 a.m., the day was already warming up and the air was dusty. I presented myself at the small reception window near the entrance, and was taken up to a small kitchen area, where three other girls of similar age to myself were – yes you’ve guessed it – drinking coffee. They were obviously expecting me and greeted me like a long-lost friend, with kisses and hugs. And coffee.
Luisa was the one in charge. I guess she was about 22, small and dark. She introduced me to the others, showed me where the washroom could be found, then took me into the office itself. We sat on high chairs like bar-stools at benches covered with a mess of paper-work.
As the boss was not expected to arrive for a while, my introduction to the very laid-back Italian work ethic was very pleasant, for we spent the next couple of hours chatting, with the girls exclaiming over what I thought was my rather ordinary outfit. All seemed happy and intrigued at the arrival of a ‘Londinese’, for of course at the time ‘Swinging London’ was the world’s centre of music and fashion, and they were eager to know all about what we teenagers and youngsters got up to in that wicked town. For much of my stay there I was thenceforth referred to as ‘La Londinese’.
During the course of this conversation I discovered that the girls had unilaterally decided to purchase (at the firm’s expense) new office wear, and it was being delivered that very day. It was decided that as I would be staying for some weeks, I should have the new uniform too, and by the time the man with the parcel had arrived, Luisa had already measured me up, and sent him back to the supplier with another order.
We all hung over the parcel as Luisa opened it. I had been expecting some sort of overall. How wrong I was. This was Milan of course, the centre of fashion and chic. The box contained half a dozen very fashionable (and quite short) beige-gold leather-look pinafore dresses (a style all the rage in the 60s) and primrose yellow short sleeved shirt blouses to go under them. The girls hurried off to change into their smart new outfits, and by the time the rest of the workforce started to arrive, they were all identically clad, which made me stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, and I fervently hoped my gear would arrive soon.
Of course, this fashion revolution did not go unnoticed. There were wolf-whistles and totally non-pc remarks, up with which we would not put these days; they’d be on a disciplinary faster than you could say ‘up yours’; but this was different times, and the girls took it all in good part, as you had to then; though I was getting a bit uncomfortable. The male reps and managers obviously treated the female office staff like this all the time; a certain amount of what even then I thought was inappropriate touching of the new garments went on, and a lot of leering. Still I suppose these macho men then knew no better, and on the whole they turned out to be pleasant and helpful.
The elderly silver-haired owner of the company eventually arrived, and his first action was to take me for a tour round the premises, whilst giving me a very detailed history of the family firm. His accent was a bit hard to follow, and he spoke very quickly; but I did learn more than I ever thought I’d ever need to know about chandeliers.
We walked through the manufacturing area, and arrived at a large set of double doors. Signor took out a large bunch of keys, fiddled with the lock (he explained this was a brand new room), and eventually pushed open the doors with a flourish. I stepped inside and gasped audibly. As he flicked on the bank of switches, a wonderland of sparkling crystal and gold appeared before me. The entire ceiling of this huge showroom was covered with what looked like a dangling jungle of flashing diamonds. I felt like a Princess transported to a magic world of twinkling stars and jewels. Corny but true. And all around me display cabinets and the floor were stacked high with equally amazing table lamps of kinds.
In fact, as I stood looking slightly upwards at the various crystals clinking and flashing in the sunlight, I actually felt a bit strange and had to look forwards and shake my head to get back to reality, which was, as the proprietor was busy explaining to me, the sale of lampadari both within Italy and abroad. My job would be to help the existing staff in the day to day work of processing orders and monitoring despatch. On top of this I was to translate any letters which arrived in any language other than Italian, and deal with any ensuing reply. I thought this was quite a big ask, as I had only studied French and Italian, and had never touched German or Spanish nor any other modern lingo at that time. The boss noticed my frown, and just told me to do my best.
And that’s what I did. When the post arrived each morning thereafter, any foreign correspondence would be pushed (or folded into a paper aeroplane and thrown) over to my place on the bench, and I would do my best to work them out. The majority of these were actually in French, and I soon became quite adept at translating between these two languages. There was hardly ever anything in English, but quite a few in Spanish. Here I found my Latin and Greek came in very handy, and to this day I believe that an understanding of the classical languages is one of the keys to a good general education. (And as an added benefit, you become shit-hot at crosswords). I even made some good stabs at translating the Scandinavian tongues; and as I never heard whether I had made any huge boo-boos, I guess I did OK. I had always thought German was a particularly ugly language so had steered clear of it, and fortunately there didn’t seem to have been much trade with Germany or the more Eastern European countries. Maybe they did not have the right temperament for chandeliers.
I quite enjoyed my work and the company of the girls who chattered away non-stop, and we all became good friends. At lunchtime on the first day, I was wondering where I might get something to eat, but was whisked away by my colleagues. Six or so of us piled into Luisa’s tiny Fiat, smaller than todays Ford KA, and drove to a large restaurant, where I enjoyed my first bowl of authentic Italian pasta with pesto and loads of parmigiano cheese. Delicious! The lunch ‘hour’ lasted from 12 noon until 2 pm and was a leisurely affair. We sat at long communal tables laden with fresh fruit and jugs of water. I thought that first day was a special outing for my benefit, but I was soon to discover that this was a daily event. No-one, but no-one brought a packed lunch; everyone took the bus to the local cafes and restaurants, of which there were many.
The food was very reasonably priced and always wonderful – with one exception. One day one of my fellow diners was eating what looked like pasta ribbons in a scrummy sauce. I asked her what it was. ‘Trippa’ she replied. I located this on the menu and ordered it for myself. A large plate was delivered, and I attempted to eat the long ‘ribbons’, which I found unusually chewy for pasta, and a bit greasy. The sauce was good though. I did wonder why my friends were looking strangely at me, and when I had struggled halfway through my food, Luisa asked me if I knew what I was eating. Oh my, when she gave a long and very graphic explanation I nearly choked. So much for my translating expertise. Why hadn’t I seen it? Trippa = TRIPE! I must have looked horrified, for everyone laughed. That was the end of that day’s lunch. After that it was back to spag bol or eggs in spinach, and no nasty surprises.
During my stay there, I did notice how many odd days holiday there were in honour of some important saint or another, and half days for the more minor ones. On one occasion I went with my friends to a large imposing church on the outskirts of the city, to view the holy relics of a local deceased saint, and was somewhat taken aback to see a blackened skeleton dressed in cardinals’ clothing laying in a splendid glass and gold coffin. It was placed at the centre of the church, and I followed the example of the girls in crossing myself with holy water, touching the ghastly coffin and praying. The church was nice inside in spite of its doom-laden outward appearance, and I actually enjoyed that outing, especially as we then went off to lunch and had the rest of the day off.
We went shopping in the gallerie – such wonderful haute couture shops and my first sighting of some carabinieri, the section of the police force whose uniform was a splendid concoction of blue and gold braid, with splendid plumed hats reminiscent of Nelson at Trafalgar. One of them slapped my bum. (I hope that’s not too much information, but I am trying to give the feel of the era if you will pardon the pun). Strange to relate, It was in one of the big shops here that I purchased a see-through plastic shopping bag with the famous Mary Quant logo on it in white. I was later to discover it would have been half the price in London. Heigh-ho.
My new uniform arrived at the end of the first week, and fitted perfectly. It did look fetching if I say so myself, and it was good to feel like one of the crowd. The male colleagues all made the obligatory coarse remarks, but thankfully stopped short at feeling the material.
I suppose one of the high spots of my working life was near the end of my stay, when I was asked to go to a trades exhibition of manufactured goods, machinery and so forth, which took place yearly on a vast showground in another part of Milan. My Company had a stand there and I was to take turns on the stand and assist with foreign enquiries. I did this in short one hour bursts, and the rest of the time wandered around, though I had precious little idea of what most of the machinery was for. Eventually my feet got a bit tired and I returned to our stand for a sit down. It was here I met Ivan. But this tale is about ‘Work’ and as he definitely came under the heading of ‘Recreation’, that’s quite another story!